Should Sector Policing Be in Your Organization’s Future?

By W. Michael Phibbs, M.H.R.
Photographs of various buildings superimposed on a city map.

To increase the effectiveness and accountability of police functions, some departments have transitioned to the sector, or zone, style of operations, sometimes also referred to as geographic, or geo, policing. Sector policing is an innovative, proactive approach to restructuring how law enforcement agencies conduct their overall crime-fighting strategies, personnel deployment, and allocation of resources to improve their effectiveness and efficiency.1 The change from traditional methods to sector policing creates new demands on every officer at all levels by requiring enhanced creative thinking and more effective leadership and management skills.

Today’s police forces have encountered changes in internal demographics. Employees now hold advanced degrees or have succeeded at other professions before entering law enforcement. Agencies also must deal with generational differences wherein younger officers demand more responsibility and opportunities for development and fast-track advancement. These individuals bring innovative ideas and need the opportunity to be heard. To help modern law enforcement organizations, the author presents some groundwork for determining if transitioning to sector policing can provide an effective approach to handling such issues.


In traditional policing strategies, agencies assign their officers to precincts—large geographical areas with a captain or commander in charge. This approach applies a centralized command philosophy that employs a hierarchical structure with overall responsibility for the success or failure of the organization at this command level. The command and control structure resembles that developed in the military, adapting the centralized authority with leadership and decision-making functions concentrated at the top of the organization. Operations and enforcement of policies are accomplished through a hierarchal management system wherein command-level officers make decisions and give directions to subordinates subject to disciplinary action if they fail to carry them out. Over time, this style of command and control can reward managerial abilities at the expense of leadership.

In contrast, sector policing uses a divisional structure emphasizing decentralized command mechanisms that break down decision-making authority into smaller parts based on predetermined criteria and allows the individuals who have hands-on knowledge of the problems to make decisions. The sectors may be business districts, neighborhoods with similar characteristics, or simply small geographical areas.

Sergeant Michael Phibbs
Sergeant Phibbs serves with the Richmond, Virginia Police Department and is a consultant with Integritas Leadership Solutions.

This approach creates a flatter organizational structure with overall responsibility and accountability pushed down to the lowest functional unit led by a sector commander. When implemented correctly, this proactive, rather than reactive, philosophy encourages immediate response to problems, provides more opportunity for development and responsibility of the lower ranks, and fosters a spirit of out-of-the-box creativity. Increased employee satisfaction often becomes a welcome by-product.


Changing to a new philosophy of policing takes courage because it can prove traumatic. Whenever agencies undertake a major alteration, they should expect a certain amount of resistance. While some employees may feel that they will lose perceived personal power, others may not want new responsibilities. Some simply may fear the unknown. Successful change requires an alignment of the culture of the organization and its new operational philosophy. Before beginning a transition to sector policing, the agency should conduct a comprehensive needs analysis at the organizational level to determine if change is even necessary and objectively identify the challenges it will face. Then, it should answer the following questions:

  • Why does the organization need to change?
  • Does it have a clear understanding of sector policing?
  • What is the benefit of changing to the new style?
  • What are the agency’s current capabilities?
  • What organizational structural changes will be required?
  • How will the organization evaluate the system to determine effectiveness?
  • What are the training needs of the employees?
  • How will the agency get buy-in from the employees?
  • Does it have the technological resources?
  • How will it engage the employees and citizens?
  • What weight will it assign to each call for service?

The end product should accurately reflect the present capabilities and weaknesses to enable a comparison of the gaps that exist with the anticipated future functions and needs of the organization. Because the restructured agency will be fundamentally different, advanced planning is necessary to prepare the employees to make the transition as smooth as possible. What may be fairly radical changes will test the leadership and management abilities at lower levels. Two essential considerations in the planning process involve an understanding of the implementation strategy and process and a determination of the needs of skill gaps in supervisor development.

If switching to sector policing was a well-thought-out decision and, in fact, needed, then the justifications should be self-evident. Open communication can help alleviate resistance. Employee forums can provide an excellent vehicle to discuss the reasons for the change and allow a cascading message through the organization to explain the anticipated outcomes. Further, a forum affords employees the opportunity to voice their issues and concerns back to their leaders. Once the gears of change have begun to turn, the agency must inform employees of time tables and give them progress reports. Keeping people advised of changes helps to encourage buy in because if employees develop a perception of being kept in the dark, they can become disengaged and resentful. When transitioning to sector policing, officers need to know what is expected of them, both in terms of new responsibilities and accountabilities and how the new approach directly impacts them.

Sector Boundaries

Creation of sector boundaries is of paramount consideration. Determining the number and type of service calls for the areas will allow for an accurate staffing analysis for personnel deployment. Giving each specific call a weight of priority can provide the information needed during the initial determination of sector staffing. A careful examination of the calls for service can influence the schedule that officers work. The data will show when and where officers are most needed, thereby enabling the organization to adjust individual shift staffing accordingly. After the first year, it should evaluate the number of calls for service that each sector receives against the overall call volume to ensure efficiency across the agency. In theory, every officer should handle roughly the same weighted equivalent of calls for service.

If a significant imbalance in calls occurs, the organization has two options: 1) realign the boundaries of the sectors, or 2) shift officers from one area to another. Both have positive and negative consequences. In practice, however, it proves easier to move officers to another zone than to redraw sector boundaries. Shifting officers can have political implications when community groups and government officials learn that their sector officers are being transferred to another location. Obviously, this demonstrates the importance of creating boundaries with care and staffing them properly from the beginning.

Shifting the number of officers among the areas also varies the span of control at the sector and precinct levels. Optimal span of control for any direct supervisor is five to eight subordinates. If each sector has six shifts and each shift has one first-line direct supervisor who oversees between five to eight people, one location may have as few as 30 officers while another may have 48 assigned, yet both remain within acceptable span-of-control limits. This end result of some zones having more officers assigned than others reinforces the need for decentralized decision-making authority at the lower levels. Assigning the same number of people to each sector will create imbalances with some areas understaffed based on call volume. Such a situation almost certainly will result in morale problems and less than adequate policing.

Operational Sustainability

Continuity of operations sounds simple. However, most operations resemble assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and nothing goes as planned. In sector policing, continuity of operations is essential for overall effectiveness and efficiency in the precinct, which can have many sectors assigned. The precinct is a location for the administrative office of the sector commander and a place where officers report. Because sector commanders are judged on successes or failures only within their individual sectors, they must recognize the potential “silo” effect of becoming solely focused on what is occurring inside their areas without staying aware of what takes place outside them. Sector commanders who fixate on their own zones can become blind to situations arising in neighboring ones that may be about to impact theirs. Instead, they should take a proactive stance and look at the issues affecting neighboring locales so they can create strategies to get ahead of the problems before they reach them. Precinct commanders who understand this can devise individual crime-fighting strategies and initiatives to develop a spirit of cooperation, rather than competition, among sectors. Uncoordinated sector strategies, no matter how outstanding, when folded into an overall precinct strategy may conflict.

The ability to lead and develop continuity of operations at the precinct level is essential, and if not established at the outset, a piecemeal approach can develop. The successful precinct commander needs to have the skills of a mid-level mediator when looking at the overall picture, thus ensuring continuous communication between the sectors and the continuity of overall long-range strategies and short-term tactics. The most effective sector commanders understand the interlocking connections between adjoining zones and, thus, willingly share data. All sectors and precincts should exchange data and information to determine crime patterns that cross both boundaries and would necessitate the development of initiatives from multiple sectors. One of the most important actions a precinct commander performs is obtaining and coordinating additional resources to help sector commanders when situations arise that the areas cannot handle themselves.

Clearly, the greatest impact in the transitioning will be on the command and control function of the organization. Sector policing creates new challenges and calls for competence in leadership and management skills at lower levels. The change from a centralized to a more decentralized structure requires that the traditional precinct and sector commanders receive training in management and leadership techniques to help them design the operational theories, long-range strategies, short-term action plans, and targeted development of personnel that will effect positive change. While good management sets the processes and procedures for efficiency, good leadership positively influences people and enhances overall effectiveness.

Through the decentralization process, responsibility and accountability are being pushed down to the sector level. Many organizations never have entrusted such obligations to officers at the lower levels. This requires individual maturity and the ability to conduct critical self-assessment. Identified deficiencies should not be considered a sign of weakness but an anticipated condition of the changeover and an opportunity for professional development throughout the organization.

As to sector leadership, creating a vision does not guarantee success, but failure to have a vision will ensure that it does not happen. Sector commanders will have the opportunity to make bold changes that immediately impact their areas. The implementation of these must proceed in the context of the overall vision of the sector; strategy and tactics are the vehicles to realize success. Creation of an overall vision and mission statement sets the tone for what the commander wants to accomplish and should be forward thinking while still accounting for the individuality of the sector. A cookie-cutter approach that does not consider the unique characteristics and variable nature of the areas will prove counterproductive. A well-thought-out vision will create a clear line of sight to direct the frontline officers’ actions toward meeting the goals and help ensure the overall long-term success of the sector. Constant and open communication will create synergy between the vision and the goal-setting efforts and develop a spirit of collaboration.

Emergency Response

Situational Awareness

Because sectors are different, their commanders must analyze the current state of their areas and create a profile that can identify the challenges, opportunities, resources available, officer capabilities, and responsibilities for specific tasks. Based on the sector profile, commanders can devise a map for such metrics as long-, medium-, and short-term goals and augment them with initiatives and action plans that contain well-thought-out and interlinked steps.

Sector commanders can benchmark initial conclusions and use them as a baseline metric to judge effectiveness and efficiency of overall strategies and timetables. These benchmarks allow the commanders to create an overarching vision listing essential tasks that they must complete and provide a guide for reaching goals. All plans should have flexibility built in to deal with unanticipated problems. During this phase, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis should be included to show the strengths and weaknesses of the sector and allow the commanders to maximize their opportunities and remedy the threats.2 Many organizations fail to understand what can constitute a threat. In sector policing, anything beyond the zone constitutes the outside environment. For example, because of the pressure to perform at the sector commander level, these leaders will want to recruit highly skilled officers to gain an advantage. This can happen because, as with most human beings, officers want to work for leaders who create and communicate a clear vision of what they want to accomplish and how they intend to get there. Effective sector commanders prevent such losses by not only creating a vision for their areas but also developing their personnel to fill individual skill gaps and helping them attain their career aspirations.

Effectiveness as a sector commander requires competency as both a leader and manager. Such individuals must understand the SWOT system and how to properly implement it when developing a long-range strategy for overall crime prevention, along with realistic short-term goals and action steps to address immediate concerns. Successful sector commanders employ more strategic development and rely less on tactical implementation. Traditionally, officers promoted to the second level of supervision would have great responsibility to implement effective tactics. Now, however, they should distance themselves from hands-on operation and delegate that authority to the first-line supervisor. For sector commanders, their principle task centers on using data and other empirical information to develop a strategic plan for their area, with the main function becoming crime management. The individual shift supervisor reporting to the sector commander has responsibility for time management and the overall effectiveness and efficiency of day-to-day operations.


The assessment and implementation process involves identifying the strengths, opportunities, and weaknesses of the organization.3 While most commanders can point out strengths and opportunities, identifying weaknesses proves difficult. Weaknesses could include the officers who have a half-hearted commitment to the goals and the community’s unwillingness to get involved. Effective leadership and two-way communication can overcome both.

Creative Thinking

Sector commanders should capitalize on the knowledge of all personnel. The ability to effectively change is limited only by the imagination and dedication of the officers assigned to the sector. As the organization pushes down responsibility to meet goals to the lower levels, opportunities for officers to think outside the box increase.

During the implementation phase, short-term objectives, initiatives, and action plans must be used as a scorecard against the long-term strategic goals. Initiatives could include a targeted crime trend, officer training, and steps toward community involvement, and all can be going on at the same time. The key is to have a specific measure to determine the degree of success for each initiative at the end of the specified period. Sector commanders should employ the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) process in creating short-term goals.4 Action plans can be further broken down into action steps that list the who, what, and when of responsibilities and become a metric for accountability.

Day-to-Day Operations

Working with and through the first-line supervisors is not only imperative for effective day-to-day management of the sector but also for development of the organization’s future leaders. Even though sector commanders have complete responsibility for their areas, they cannot be available all of the time and must trust their first-line supervisors to have the skills and desire to meet the goals of the sector. The abilities of sector commanders to accomplish goals are directly related to those of their subordinate leaders to lead and manage. Decisions must be made according to the level of direct autonomy that first-line supervisors have for taking such actions during their shifts. In a simple formula, the amount of unrestricted control over the operations of the officers can be directly compared with the level of freedom that first-line supervisors have to make decisions.

As an example, when personnel from different sectors are assigned to report to the same shift, does the sector commander relay orders through the first-line supervisor or go directly to the officers assigned? In the first case, the sector commander entrusts that the first-line supervisor accurately and timely notifies the shift officers about the orders. When multiple sector commanders give different orders, the possibility exists for the first-line supervisor to show loyalty to one sector over another and not give equal priority to the directives. Conversely, in the latter situation, if the sector commander gives orders directly to the officers and bypasses the first-line supervisor, the commander can hold the officers directly accountable for the results; however, the first-line supervisor may not be able to accurately plan and implement time management duties. How orders are delivered and officers are held accountable reiterates the author’s original suggestion: organizations should carefully think through the decision to change to sector policing and complete a thorough plan of the implementation process.


Sector policing has great potential for law enforcement agencies seeking to provide increased effectiveness in crime-fighting strategies and better development of community relationships, as well as providing opportunities for challenging and developing their officers. Before beginning any major change in operational philosophy, they should undertake an in-depth realistic analysis to show the amount of organizational preparation needed. Then, opportunities for success will be understood within the context of changing from one organizational philosophy to another, initiated with a clear understanding of the impact on the organizational structure and processes necessary to carry out the endeavor.


The views expressed in this article reflect those of the author and should not be considered as representing an official position of the author’s employing agency.
For additional information, see Randy Garner, “‘SWOT’ Tactics: Basics for Strategic Planning,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2005, 17-19.
The author adapted information in this section from Essentials of Strategy (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006), 22-23, 151.
Garner, 18.